The Invisible Hand (Pentecost)


Luke 9:18-22

It is Pentecost and ordinarily I stop what I am doing on Sunday mornings to preach a sermon apropos the commemoration of the descent of the Holy Spirit that Sunday in Jerusalem, 50 days after the Lord’s resurrection. However, looking at the text next to be treated in Luke 9, it seemed to me very easy to make a Pentecost sermon out of it, so we continue where we left off last Lord’s Day morning.

Text Comment

At this point in his Gospel, Luke, if indeed he were following a written copy of the Gospel of Mark, as most scholars believe he was, for some reason omits a substantial section of that Gospel, Mark 6:45-8:26. That section of Mark includes such memorable incidents as the Lord’s walking on the water, his feeding of the 4,000, and his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who begged that the Lord cast a demon out of her daughter and was willing for him to do so even if it meant asking him to treat her like a dog that ate the children’s crumbs under the table. None of this appears in Luke. But Luke is very soon to begin a long section, almost ten chapters, of material unique to his Gospel. He couldn’t include everything; he had to leave some good stuff out! Only so much would fit on a scroll and Luke is already the longest book in the New Testament.

v.18     Matthew and Mark tell us that the incident we are about to read took place in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi, outside of Jewish territory, near the foot of Mount Hermon in present day Lebanon. He had, you remember, wanted some privacy for the purpose of the instruction of the twelve and apparently to get that he finally had to leave the country. The epoch making conversation we are about to read, which is given at great length in Matthew, began after he had spent time in communion with his Father.

            In replying to the Lord’s question, the disciples gave largely the same report as had reached King Herod, as we read earlier in vv. 7-8. Jesus’ question was the beginning of a test to see if his disciples knew him better than the crowds. [Bock, i, 838] The crowds were attempting to identify Jesus with some great figure from Israel’s past precisely because of the remarkable things he was saying and doing. He must have been one of the great prophets of Israel’s past, like Elijah, because he was doing the same things Elijah had done and was preaching fearlessly the way Elijah had preached.

v.20     In all three synoptic Gospels the “you” is in the emphatic position in the sentence. But who do you say that I am? Forget the conventional wisdom, what about you? This reminds me of the remark of Lord Melbourne, British Prime Minister in the 1830s: “You know, things have come to a pretty pass if religion is going to become personal.” Jesus was making it personal!

v.21     Peter’s reply indicates that they understood clearly that Jesus was the Messiah, the long-awaited deliverer, the promised descendant of David. But they did not yet understand what the Messiah was to do. Their picture of Jesus was not wholly wrong, but it was seriously incomplete. There were things about Jesus’ mission they would not fully grasp until after the resurrection, as we shall see.

v.22     The charge to silence is to be explained by the fact that the identification of Jesus as the Messiah was bound to be misunderstood and he is about to explain in what way. The Jews detested their situation, living under the boot of Roman conquerors. They were ready to welcome any Messiah who might deliver them from subjugation to Rome. If the crowds began widely to suspect that Jesus was the Messiah they would have expected him to lead them in a revolt against Rome and might well have begun the revolt themselves — as some of them had already done on several occasions — in the expectation that he would assume leadership of it and transform it into a war of liberation. What is more, trumpeting the fact that Jesus was the Messiah would only exacerbate the hostility toward Jesus that had already surfaced among the religious leadership. There would be a time to throw caution to the wind in this respect, but it was not yet that time.

v.23     What it meant to be the Messiah was that Jesus must suffer at the hands of the Jewish leadership and be executed and rise again. In other words, the nation, the people he came to deliver would reject him. This was no one’s expectation of the coming king, Isaiah 53 notwithstanding. This incident was, as you know, a turning point. This is the first announcement of the coming suffering and death of the Lord. It was intimated at the time of his birth, but during the ministry there has so far been nothing about this. There will be much more. From this point forward the Lord will be much more explicit about what lay before him. Indeed, the necessity of the Lord’s suffering and of the disciples suffering in following him may be said to be the key themes of the remainder of Luke.

The ministry of the Holy Spirit had always been to bring unbelievers to living faith by changing their hearts. Pentecost marks the beginning of that ministry spreading to the whole world. In other words multitudes of Gentiles would soon believe about Jesus what Peter said of him here.

The Four Gospels are full of Peter. No disciple speaks as often or as much as he does. The Lord speaks more often and at greater length to him than to any other of the twelve, so far as we have a record. No one’s gaffes are recorded in as much detail, but neither is anyone’s praise from the Lord Jesus. No one was as likely to confess his loyalty to the Lord, on the one hand, no one was as likely to rebuke and lecture the Lord Jesus on the other as Peter. The Lord said both more wonderful things and harder things to Peter than to anyone else. In all the lists of the twelve disciples, though there are alternations in the order of the names and even in some of the names themselves, because some disciples had two names, Peter is always listed first. Think of the things that Peter said that are recorded for us in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts:

  1. After the great catch of fish: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” [Luke 5:8]
  2. At the healing of the woman with the issue of blood: “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you. [Why do you ask who touched you]? [Luke 8:45]
  3. “Lord we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” [Matt. 19:27]
  4. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” [Matt. 14:28] And shortly thereafter, “Lord, save me.” [14:30]
  5.  “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” [John 6:68]
  6. “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah…” [Luke 9:33]
  7. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” [Matt. 18:21]
  8. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” [Matt. 16:16]
  9. After the Lord intimated his coming suffering and death: “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’” [Matt. 16:22]
  10.  “You shall never wash my feet.” And then “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” [John 13:8-10]
  11. In the Upper Room: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” [Matt. 26:33]
  12. A few hours later in the courtyard of the high priest: “I do not know the man.” [Matt. 26:72]
  13. Peter…grieved that the Lord had asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
  14. And into Acts we find Peter the same man. He was the preacher on that first Pentecost who thundered to a great multitude gathered before him: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…., for the promise is to you and to your children and to many who are afar off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” [2:38-39]
  15. Then, later, having been given the command from heaven to eat food the Jews regarded as unclean, he replied, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” [Acts 10:14]
  16. But the next day having learned his lesson: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” [10:34] [cf. Whyte, Bible Characters, vol. iv, 46]

 

Impertinent, foolish, rash, on the one hand, warm-hearted, eager, and passionate in his loyalty to Jesus on the other. And so to Peter the Lord said such utterly different things as “Get behind me, Satan” and “Upon this rock I will build my church.”

So here, in an entirely typical fashion, Peter takes front and center and speaks for the group, “You are the Christ of God.” It is clear that Peter was speaking for his fellows, because when the Lord replies to his remark in v. 21, he speaks not to “him,” but to “them.” There is something wonderful, interesting, and very important in this attention to Peter. The new birth does not abolish our personalities or render insignificant our talents. We are who we are and even in grace in many respects we remain who we were. You will have noticed this as you have observed friends of yours coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Their personalities were much the same after as before. They had the same sense of humor. They had the same strengths and limitations. Their characters may have changed profoundly; their moral commitments may have been utterly transformed; their way of life revolutionized; but no one would mistake them for a different human being than they had been before they encountered and believed in Jesus Christ. They are a new creation, as Paul says, but only in some fundamental respects, not in every respect. If a person were shy before he became a Christian he is likely to remain so. If a woman had a bubbly, happy demeanor before she was born again, she is almost certain to have one afterward. If he told dumb jokes before he was saved, unfortunately he is quite likely to continue to do so as a Christian. If he or she were a sharp thinker before, he or she will be a sharp thinker as a Christian. And so on. Just as a new Christian’s physical appearance does not change, so too many features of his personality remain the same.

Nature is not forsaken in salvation, nor is it abolished; rather it is sanctified, purified, and made more beautiful. Peter was and remained the unique individual God had made him to be, with all the weaknesses and all the strengths of his individual personality. His was a forceful personality. He was a leader of men, certainly much more so than any of the other members of the twelve. That explains his prominence in the Gospels. The others deferred to him. They did so naturally because of the strength of his personality. But Peter was no Paul. Compared to the powerful mind of the Apostle Paul, compared to Paul’s sophistication and urbanity and learning, Peter was something of a school boy. Peter’s natural gifts and strong personality may have made him first among equals in the Twelve and the key figure in the church’s earliest history after Pentecost, but as anyone knows who reads the New Testament, its great master, its towering personality, its supreme intelligence is not Peter but Paul. Paul was a leader of men, a powerful thinker, a professional scholar before he met the Lord Christ on the road to Damascus, and he was all those things and more after he became a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Such is the regard for human nature we find in the biblical account of salvation and we find in Christian experience. We are not the same, we Christians, not at all. We are different in all the ways that any human being is different from another. We are distinct individuals, the products of a universe of influences that have shaped us into the people we are. Even Andrew, who was Peter’s brother, hadn’t the forward personality or the strength of will that Peter had in spades. Andrew drew fewer rebukes from the Lord as a result of being slower to speak, but then he received less praise as well.

If you stop and think about it you will realize that there aren’t two people among the hundreds who make up this congregation who are alike, at all alike. My head is bowed as yours are during our congregational petitions in morning worship. I probably couldn’t see the person praying at the microphone in the balcony even if I were to look, as people standing for prayer in the balcony would block my sight. But — and I’m sure this is your experience as well — I almost always and immediately know who it is that is leading us in prayer, so distinctive is each one’s voice: male or female, high or low, the particular tone and timber. And as the voice, so a thousand other features of our individual lives.

But in one respect and in the most important respect, we are all the same, or I hope we are. We all confess Jesus as the Christ of God. Some of us confess it sooner than others, more boldly than others. Some of us leap to the fore when we have the opportunity to confess Jesus as the Christ of God and some of us are more retiring, but we all make the same confession that Peter made here. Indeed, we will confess more about Jesus than that, as Peter learned to do as he discovered more and more about Jesus as events unfolded. There is something that a vast multitude of people in this world have in common: the confession of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God. And it is this confession, uttered from the heart and practiced in the life, that separates human beings from one another in the only way that finally matters.

The unending differences between people are only so many fascinating details in comparison to this one thing. The differences the world concentrates on and considers so important — race, ethnicity, talent, appearance, IQ, politics, wealth, health, or even sexual orientation — are nothing in comparison to whether one has or has not confessed Jesus as the Christ of God.

This is why this conversation Jesus had with his disciples and Peter’s answer is such a turning point in the Gospel history. The question is the key question of human life. If sinful human beings need salvation and there is salvation to be found, if mankind is dead in sin and there is some way to be made alive again, if Jesus Christ is the Son of God; if it is true as Peter would later boldly proclaimed to the Jewish Sanhedrin,

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved,” [Acts 4:12]

then obviously your view of Jesus Christ, your commitment to him or lack of the same, is more important than anything else. This truth is what John Newton was after in a long poem he once wrote, a poem that begins with this verse:

What think you of Christ? is the test,
   To try both your state and your scheme;
You cannot be right in the rest
   Unless you think rightly of Him.
As Jesus appears in your view,
   As He is beloved or not,
So God is disposed to you,
   And mercy or wrath [is] your lot.

“Who do men say that I am?” is the question of all questions, unless it is “Who do you say that I am?” In our pluralistic day and age, it has become increasingly impolitic to say this, but we betray the Lord and forsake the Christian faith altogether if we do not maintain, in the famous words of the Anglican Archbishop William Temple about the gospel of Jesus Christ, “either it is true for all, or it is not true at all.” [Cited in Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 125]

When church history has moved on and scholars of future days look back on the history of the 20th century church, they will certainly chart the progress, begun in the two previous centuries, of a growing hesitation on the part of so-called Christians to say this about Jesus — that he is either the only Savior of sinners or he is no Savior at all — but these scholars also will, many think, say that the Lausanne Covenant, produced in 1974 by the International Congress on World Evangelization meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland that year, is perhaps the most important ecumenical statement about the gospel in the world the church has ever produced. They may well say that it ranks among the great creedal deliverances of Christian history. Like the Nicene Creed of the 4th century or the great Reformation confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries, this confession was also a manifesto of Christian faith in a time when much of the church had gone over to unbelief. In the 4th century it was the Arians, in the time of the Reformation it was the system of medieval Catholicism, and in the 20th century it was modern theological liberalism, a liberalism that denied the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ to be the Messiah and the Savior of the world. The Lausanne Congress was called into being precisely because the World Council of Churches had lost interest in the gospel as the power of God unto salvation for every nation and every person on the earth. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, they were happy to have a Messiah, but they wanted a Messiah of their own definition not one who alone could die for the sins of the whole world.

There are fifteen paragraphs to that Covenant — you might want to look it up this afternoon and read it, the entire document is not very long — and here is the third of the fifteen, entitled “The Uniqueness and Universality of Christ.”

We affirm that there is only one Saviour and only one gospel….  We recognise that everyone has some knowledge of God through his general revelation in nature. But we deny that this can save, for people suppress the truth by their unrighteousness. We also reject as derogatory to Christ and the gospel every kind of syncretism and dialogue which implies that Christ speaks equally through all religions and ideologies. Jesus Christ, being himself the only God-man, who gave himself as the only ransom for sinners, is the only mediator between God and people. There is no other name by which we must be saved. All men and women are perishing because of sin, but God loves everyone, not wishing that any should perish but that all should repent. Yet those who reject Christ repudiate the joy of salvation and condemn themselves to eternal separation from God. To proclaim Jesus as "the Saviour of the world" is not to affirm that all people are either automatically or ultimately saved, still less to affirm that all religions offer salvation in Christ. Rather it is to proclaim God’s love for a world of sinners and to invite everyone to respond to him as Saviour and Lord in the wholehearted personal commitment of repentance and faith. Jesus Christ has been exalted above every other name….

That is the message that began to spread over the world at Pentecost, the very message about Jesus that Peter in a stroke of genius on this particular occasion compressed into a few words here: “the Christ of God.”

Surely no one can read the Bible with an honest heart and believe that its message is any different than that!  If God has sent his son into the world for the world’s salvation, there is obviously no other way of salvation. If the creator of heaven and earth died ignominiously on a Roman gibbet for the sins of the world, it is perfectly obvious that there is not some other way to be rid of our sins besides faith in Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ, dead on Friday, was alive again on the following Sunday, then surely there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved from sin and death. If this Jesus who died, rose again, and ascended to heaven is coming again in due time to judge the living and the dead, then surely our relationship to him is and must be what determines our destiny in the world to come.

The Lord Jesus himself understood that his coming into the world created a division among men. Some would receive him; others would reject him. In that sense, he said once, he brought not peace but a sword. A great gulf opens between human beings according to how they answer this question: who is Jesus of Nazareth? There are people, vast multitudes of people in the world — perhaps there are some of them here this morning — who never think about Jesus at all. They hear his name from time to time, perhaps they use it as an interjection in their speech, but so far as their lives are concern there might as well never have been a Jesus of Nazareth. They are aware, of course, that other people have a very different view of Jesus Christ, but they remain indifferent; perhaps they think they know why many people believe that he is the Christ of God. Increasingly people, at least, in our elite culture in the Western world think that people still give Peter’s answer to that question today because they are stupid, or because they are afraid, or because they need a crutch to navigate this world. They think that people like Peter are superstitious, unscientific, gullible rubes. Peter was a bumpkin. Peter was no bumpkin. He was to become one of the most influential human beings ever to walk the face of the earth. He had seen things and heard things and knew by now who Jesus was! He had been as dumbstruck as anyone when he saw what Jesus did, but facts were facts!

But there is happily another class of men and women who are the very reverse of those who are indifferent to Jesus or hostile towards Jesus. They think about Jesus all the time, they take his name into their hearts and up on to their lips many times a day. Even when they are not thinking specifically about him, he remains the foundation of their lives. They hear the Apostle Paul say, “To me to live is Christ…” and they think, “It is the same for me as it was for Paul.” When they read in another place in Paul that Jesus Christ was made to us “wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification and redemption” they think, “that is precisely what he has become to me as well.” And they think such thoughts about Jesus not because they are stupid or afraid or easily led — they are often the very reverse of that and often become Christians after fiercely, thoughtfully, and intelligently resisting the suggestion — but because, like Peter, they have encountered Jesus themselves and know very well that he is the Christ of God. That is what the Holy Spirit has done. He has made hundreds of millions of people in this world followers of Jesus Christ as certain that he is the Christ of God as Peter was who witnessed all his miracles and heard all his sermons. How do they know that? Because the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who came upon the church with power on that first Pentecost Sunday, has revealed Jesus to them, proven his claims to them, and convinced them that salvation is to be found in no one else.

It was the Spirit, Jesus said, who would convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. It would be the Spirit who would take the witness borne by the followers of Christ and make it a river of living water to the world. It would be the Spirit who would convince not merely a few Jews that Jesus was the Christ of God, but in a way the world never anticipated, vast multitudes of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth. That began at Pentecost when, by the Spirit, Peter convinced 3,000 others that Jesus was the Christ of God. So the Spirit has done, and so he is doing today. The Holy Spirit is the invisible hand of God making followers of Christ everywhere. At some point the question is put to people as Jesus put it to his disciples here: who do you say that I am? I am putting it to you today: who do you say Jesus is?

It is the only question you will ever be asked upon your answer to which turns the entire meaning and fortune and prospect and future of your life. What is your answer? Give your answer in your own heart right now. Who do you say that I am? May the Holy Spirit at work in you make your answer Peter’s answer, which is still perfectly true: the Christ of God!